Interview with Glenn Paauw
I recently had the opportunity to interview Glenn Paauw of the Institute for Bible Reading and author of Saving the Bible From Ourselves: Learning to Read and Live the Bible Well. The Institute recently collaborated with Tyndale Publishing on a new project called Immerse.
Mr. Paauw graciously put up with my questions and has provided us with a detailed look into the world of reading the Bible well. First, I want to say a special thank you Glenn for his detailed answers and to Evie Polsley of Tyndale for setting up this important interview.
Now, on to the complete unedited interview.
Tell us about yourself, the Institute for Bible Reading, and the purpose of Immerse.
I grew up in a very Bible-oriented community—Dutch Reformed—and so the Bible has always been hugely important to me. I’ve spent nearly three decades now in Bible ministry and publishing. But in the course of my journey I’ve become increasingly concerned about the research that shows (1) very low levels of Bible reading, and (2) very low levels of understanding how to read and then live the biblical narrative. (I should come clean at the beginning of this interview and confess that I myself published and promoted the use of the Bible in ways that I now see as detrimental to good reading and understanding.) Because of this growing awareness of the “connection problem”—people owning but not engaging the Bible, I turned from being concerned mostly with access to the Bible to what people were actually doing with the Bibles they already owned. There are enough Bibles in this country for every single household to have four. But what is happening with those Bibles? Are people connecting with the content of the Bible? Do they have the tools to read and understand the Bible well? Do they comprehend the big story of the Bible and are they taking up their own roles in that story today? Is the Bible bringing the deep transformation it promises?
In response to my growing concern with these questions, I joined some other colleagues with similar Bible publishing backgrounds and similar concerns, to form the Institute for Bible Reading. We are a new organization, but made up of folks with a bit of history and a deep understanding of what we’ve been doing with the Bible and what a different, better future looks like. Because the fact is the Bible is not having anything close to the influence that it should, both within and outside of the church. The Bible is not fulfilling its mission to shape and guide our Christian communities precisely because we ourselves are getting in the way. We’ve underutilized the Bible and misrepresented the kind of book it is and how it works. It’s time to welcome it back to its full role in the life of God’s people. It’s time to start accepting the Bible on its own terms, rather than trying to turn it into something it’s not. But in order for this to happen, we need to have new kinds of Bibles, and we have to change some of the things we’ve been doing (and not doing) with the Bible.
The Institute is all about creating this change. We are working to create a new Bible reading movement. As a catalytic think tank we want to understand what’s happening with the Bible and then produce the new tools that will help people welcome the Scriptures back into their lives. Our new Bible presentation and reading program called Immerse is an example of the kind of new resources we are going to be offering. In partnership with Tyndale House Publishers, we are working on a brand new presentation of the Bible in six volumes that we think will become the premier reader’s Bible. There will be six Bible reading experiences to go along with the six volumes so churches can have church-wide, full community Bible immersion experiences to rediscover the depth and power of our sacred writings. The first two experiences will launch in the fall of 2017: Messiah (the New Testament) and Beginnings (the Pentateuch). See our Immerse website: http://immersebible.com.
I recently read your book Saving the Bible From Ourselves where you discussed that the design of today’s Bibles are hindering us from reading God’s Word rather than helping us. Can you expand on that?
I think that for a long time the Christian community has not thought enough about the physical design of its sacred writings. Is that a big deal? It really is. There is a connection in God’s good creation between form and content. The form in which something appears is our first signal about what that thing is. Form and content are meant to work together coherently, so that the form, or visual design in this case, accurately communicates what it is we are looking at. When the form of the Bible changed dramatically during the Reformation, people were presented with a Bible that answered the question: What is this? in a new way. And that new form—a chapter and verse study or reference Bible—no longer accurately communicated the actual nature of those sacred writings. It served the Bible up in small, numbered, bite-sized pieces rather than inviting readers to dive into whole books and to read them as the kind of literature they are.
The Bible is a collection of writings of different literary genres—stories, songs, letters, prophecies, wisdom sayings, and lots more. If we are presented with a Bible that looks for all the world like an encyclopedia or a dictionary, then the form or design of that Bible is misleading us about its true nature. Therefore, right off the bat we are being encouraged to read the Bible the wrong way—by referencing little bits of it rather than reading it at length and in depth in natural ways. To use the food metaphor—we are being invited to snack rather than feast. There is a whole new world of the Bible waiting to be rediscovered by God’s people if only those who published Bibles would reorient their thinking about Bible design. Bible publishers could and should regularly give us Bibles not only with beautifully designed individual pages for greater readability, but also with clear presentations of the natural literary sections of the Bible’s various books (note: these are distorted and obscured by the chapter and verse divisions). There’s been a strong emphasis on Bible translation for a long time. We’re overdue for a new era deeply attuned to the importance of visual design in helping people read and understand the Bible well.
Is Immerse your vision of what God’s Word should look like as far as design for reading? Does it reflect your ideal font size and style, line-spacing, character count, lines per page, column width, paper, etc., and how does that affect readability?
Immerse has taken account of all the factors contributing to both readability and understanding more than any other reader’s edition of the Bible that I’m aware of. Bible design is actually a very challenging endeavor. There are factors that work against each other, and there is a very real economic pressure to cut certain corners. The Bible is a sizeable collection of sacred writings. It isn’t easy to fit it into a single volume that also remains warm and inviting. The temptation to indulge in space and cost-saving measures is always there. That said, once there is an awareness of all the issues, and a firm commitment to do right by the Bible as a printed book, good things can happen.
With the Immerse Bible, good things are happening. With a trim size of 5-1/4 x 8-1/2, and a blended sheet paper (40#) giving each of its six volumes a nice thickness (and great opacity), these Immerse volumes feel good in the hand—an overlooked but important aspect of wanting to hold and read a book. The font is just under 11 points, and the leading over 12, so it is a very comfortable reading book. Arno Pro is a warm, sturdy font that doesn’t tire you out over time and so makes for excellent long-form reading. This text breathes well in every way, including the single-column line length (average about 72 character spaces) and the ungrudging margins on the page. And of course the New Living Translation shows both poetry and prose appropriately, and embeds literary forms when needed (as when the book of Acts reports the letter from the Jerusalem leaders to the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia). So Immerse really is built for a great reading experience. It is designed to reveal literary form and to allow one to comfortably read at length—in short, to be a pleasing, uncluttered, elegantly simple presentation of the biblical text. I think this is what a reading Bible is supposed to be.
We should keep in mind that these are workhorse editions, made for churches to use in bulk as whole congregations read through a major portion of the Bible together. For those looking for a more premium edition, Tyndale will be releasing a boxed set of the six volumes in hardcover later.
Do you feel that reading is what we should be doing the most with the Bible?
Part of the cultural turn to modernity was a new emphasis on study, dissection, and close analysis of the smaller parts of things. This model of investigation was held up as the path to a truer kind of knowledge. The church followed this new model of truth-finding and applied it to the Bible. We moved away from reading the Bible holistically and focused more and more on dividing the Bible into pieces and examining them in isolation. We kind of lost track of the literature of the Bible, and of its story. Whether in devotional use or serious study, we embraced this microscopic and piecemeal approach.
There are a number of things God’s people need to do to fully recover the Bible, but the first step is to simply begin reading whole books again. More than anything else, reading is what we’ve lost. Study is important, but we need to realize it’s a secondary activity. Study of smaller parts of the Bible should always be done in the context of the messages and intentions of whole books and natural literary sections. Reading is the first and most natural thing to do with the Bible. Every other form of using the Bible depends on our knowing and taking to heart whole books and the overall narrative of those Scriptures. Bible reading is what brings us this gift. Reading, more than anything else, invites us into the world of the Bible.
Can you talk about the book order of Immerse and the advantages of changing the order?
A lot of people don’t know that there hasn’t always been a single order of the books of the Bible. Early collections of the Scriptures had a lot of variety in the order of the books. The major groupings tended to have some consistency—Torah, Prophets, Writings, then Gospels and Letters—but within those categories there was diversity of order (except for the Torah). It was really not until the advent of the printing press that a single book order got cemented in our Bibles. But once you open that door to the question of book order, fascinating possibilities open up. I don’t believe there is a single “right” order to the books of the Bible. Different book orders can serve different purposes. And it’s very important to be aware of the implications of different book orders, and how they can affect our reading of individual books. Sequence and surroundings really do matter.
In the case of Immerse, we are looking to enhance the experience of Bible readers in particular ways. First, the very fact of a new order gets the attention of readers and can help make this a fresh encounter with the Bible. By separating the four Gospels, we can avoid the usual “schmushing” effect in which people have difficulty recognizing and appreciating the unique perspective of each Gospel. By placing each Gospel with the books that naturally go with it, there is a strengthened sense of a genuine four-fold presentation of the story of Jesus and the outworking of his life for his followers and the world. For his part, Luke has been upset for a very long time that someone thought it a good idea to put John’s volume between the two parts of his history of the early Christian movement. Placing Paul’s letters in what is plausibly the order in which they were written (it’s impossible to absolutely certain here) helps readers follow the changing conditions of Paul’s ministry and his corresponding theological responses.
In the First Testament (following the First and New Covenant distinction in the book of Hebrews), we are generally following the three-part division of the Hebrew Bible (Law, Prophets, Writings). Within that, it seems more helpful to have the prophets in a chronological order that follows the history of Israel than to have them grouped by size. Next we gather songs and wisdom books by type of writing, since chronology isn’t as relevant here. We close the First Testament with the second telling of Israel’s history (which is particularly from a worship perspective), and then Esther and Daniel, which speak especially clearly to the Israel’s situation after the disaster of national failure and exile. Also, with this arrangement each Testament closes with an apocalyptic writing.
All in all, we believe readers will come away with new insights into individual books in a different context, and also with a greater appreciation for the overall narrative of God’s mighty acts for the sake of his world.
You mentioned reading with friends in a three-year rhythm. Can you expand on the value of reading with friends and what that setting might look like? Can you explain the three-year rhythm and your thoughts behind it?
The oldest way of reading the Bible is Lectio Continua—a continuous reading through whole books. The evidence we have is that in the earliest synagogues God’s people followed a regular cycle of reading through the Torah holistically, either in a one-year rhythm (the Babylonian Jewish community) or a three-year rhythm (the Jewish community in the Holy Land). The early church seems to have widely followed this Jewish pattern. We know that Origen, John Chrysostom, Augustine, and others regularly preached through whole books of the Bible. Over time, the church has moved more and more toward a Lectio Selecta pattern of reading (selecting different topical passages), while some church traditions have adopted a common three-year lectionary to guide their regular congregational worship and reading.
Immerse welcomes Bible readers back into the ancient wisdom of regular, holistic, community-based Bible feasting. As I write about in my book, there are a million ways we are tempted to read the Bible only through our own narrow lens. The Bible can so easily become a mirror—we choose which passages to read and which to ignore. We find things that reinforce what we already believe. An ongoing rhythm of reading the entire Bible with others will open us up to bigger things, to new things, even to uncomfortable things—exactly what we need.
Immerse is not about offering the church one more program. It’s about welcoming churches back into a new pattern of discipleship: steady and continuing immersion in God’s word. This is really the only way the Bible can do all the work it was meant to do, forming us into new communities that are taking up their proper roles in God’s already-inaugurated new creation.
I noticed in my own reading that footnotes and other distractions feel like someone talking to me while I’m trying to read. It’s harder to focus on the text itself. But when I read Immerse I’m more likely to stay focused and even read for much longer and cover more of the Bible. Is this the common experience that you’ve encountered?
The thing that is increasingly difficult to get in an age like ours is sustained and focused attention. Most of our experiences now are littered with distractions. As one writer puts it, we live in an atmosphere of data smog. And as Nicolas Carr has written about in his book The Shallows, it is very difficult for our brains to ignore visual distractions. In fact, the more distractions we encounter, the more we want them. Our brains crave that sensation of There’s something else, something new! Look over there! making concentration even harder.
As part of this cultural tendency toward information overload, we’ve come to believe that the way to get the most out of the Bible is to load it up with more and more “helps.” But this has backfired. The additives have overwhelmed the text itself, making it difficult to simply read our Bibles. This is why it’s so refreshing now to see reader’s editions of the Bible built on the idea of elegant simplicity. Clean, beautiful, undisturbed presentations of the text really do change the nature of our experience with the Bible. I speak about these new reader’s editions in lots of places, and sometimes I can tell people are thinking it’s not that big of a deal. They say that all the additives don’t interfere with their reading, that they ignore them. But invariably, once they’ve actually spent some time reading an additives-free Bible like Immerse, they report their surprise at the difference it really does make.
In your book Saving the Bible From Ourselves you describe your ideal reading layout, but you don’t talk about translations that much. Do you see the translation as having an impact on the reading experience?
Translation is obviously a crucial matter in reading and living the Bible well. I didn’t address it much in the book because, number one, I’m not an expert on it, and number two, a lot of other folks write and debate on Bible translation.
However, I will say that I think Bible translators have also been influenced by modernity. They’ve had a tendency at times to focus too narrowly on translating isolated words. A critical part of the translation task is to think big—about entire books, their genres, and their natural literary divisions. For example, one way ancient authors in an oral culture would mark these natural divisions was the judicious use of repeated phrases. These phrases would clearly mark the seams and major sections of a work for a listening audience. It’s very helpful when the echoes of these repeated phrases are translated to be clear to today’s readers. I’d like Bible translators to always be thinking about audiences and inviting them to read whole books: is our translation coherent at the meta-level? Is our work keeping track of the literary characteristics revealed over the entire course of a book?
Also, the modern emphasis has been about pure meaning. But ancient Jewish culture was very down-to-earth and not afraid of emotion. Stellar Bible translation invites readers back into an experience of the world of the Bible. As Sarah Ruden writes in her excellent recent book on Bible translation, The Face of Water, it’s not just what the words mean, it’s how they mean. The communicative power of the Scriptures is lost when we overly formalize our Bible translation. A lot of Bible readers who consider themselves serious students or even teachers tend to obsess over what they call “accuracy” in Bible translation. But often this is done to the neglect of other crucial aspects of the text, like how literary devices can create powerful experiences for readers.
I’ve written about needing more than one Bible. Most people want a single Bible to do everything, but in my opinion this makes a Jack of All Trades and Master of None. I think it’s better to have one for reading, one for carry, one for study, one for preaching, etc. In my train of thought, Immerse is ideal for reading. In your opinion, would you recommend Immerse for study, carry, and preaching as well?
I do think there’s this myth out there that it’s only with a so-called study Bible that serious Bible learning and engagement happens. As if the only way to really investigate the Bible deeply is to experience it in a setting in which the text is broken up and surrounded by an ocean of other material. Of course it can be very, very helpful to have a collection of background material on the Bible available—maps, commentary by experts, etc. But when all this material is on the same page as the Bible text we need to be fully aware of what this does to the presentation of the sacred words themselves. Plus, study Bibles are typically double-column chapter and verse Bibles, so it’s very difficult to see the natural literary sections and forms of the various books. Bible study should include literary awareness, a factor which is often overlooked. Part of what needs to change in our perception is that a Bible for study has to be a complicated, numbered Bible.
There are people who have an above-average interest in the Bible, and I think such people will always make use of a big variety of translations and types of Bibles. But it’s probably unrealistic to think that everyone will have multiple Bibles for multiple different kinds of use. I believe the first and most essential Bible for someone to have is a reader’s edition, since, as I’ve mentioned, reading is the first and most natural thing to do with a Bible. It’s what the authors and editors of the Bible would have expected us to do with it. And everything else we do with the Bible should be done in the context of reading it holistically first. Given all the Bible referencing by chapter and verse among Christians (which is often unnecessary), we’ll likely need to have a reference Bible too. But I don’t think everyone needs to have five or six Bibles for different uses. Given the research on the poor state of Bible reading and understanding, I’d be very happy for more people to simply engage well with a single Bible.
Immerse is a tremendous all-purpose Bible that will appeal to a wide variety of people. It’s great for reading, of course, but also for taking a closer look at smaller parts of the text in light of the whole. And I’ve long been a believer that preaching should also be a holistic endeavor, and should be based on the kind of translation that is accessible to everyone in natural English.
Do you plan for Immerse to be published in other editions such as large print or a single volume?
Tyndale House will be making those specific decisions, so I don’t know for sure at this point. I do know they will be releasing a premium boxed set of the six Immerse volumes in hardcover.
Will Immerse be available in other translations or is your focus on NLT?
Immerse is a presentation of the New Living Translation. But we do hope our work on Immerse will continue to influence other Bible publishers to present their own translations in elegantly simple formats. Our goal is to be a catalyst for a larger Bible reading renewal movement. We want this approach to spread to all translations and also across the globe. I know of reader’s editions in at least 15 international languages now, and in English there are additives-free editions in the NLT, KJV, NKJV, ESV, NIV, and even the old ASV (the Bibliotheca edition).
What are your thoughts on all of these reading Bibles that have come out recently? Does this show that publishers are listening, or is this a response to market demand?
This is a very interesting, and revealing, question. The group that now makes up the Institute for Bible Reading began talking to Bible publishers (both commercial and nonprofit) about these clean, new reading formats about 15 years ago. But we did not get much traction. It’s pretty clear that since there was no current demand from the market for editions like these at that time, the publishers weren’t interested. A market-driven environment can function like a set of chains on Bible publishers, preventing them from seeing and appreciating new ideas that haven’t yet caught on. It’s impossible to be a leader, in the sense of taking people to good, new places, when you are only market reactive.
But the fact is, even without knowing in advance what they wanted or demanding it from publishers, people fell in love with reader’s editions once they had a chance to experience them. This is a bit of a lesson for us, to not idolize the market. We need to be able to think independently, to do things that are simply good in themselves—good for the Bible and good for Bible readers. I think a breakthrough came for the publishers when the Bibliotheca Kickstarter campaign became such a phenomenon in 2014. Book designer Adam Lewis Greene raised $1.5 million in thirty days for a beautifully designed additives-free Bible. This got everyone’s attention in the Bible industry, and helped them rethink some of their assumptions about what people were looking for.
My dream is that these reader’s editions will become a permanent part of the Bible publishing landscape. We’ve had chapter-and-verse study editions for close to 500 years now. It’s time to return to these elegant formats that really do enable deep, immersive reading of the text. This is the need of our day, especially as we know younger readers are losing interest in the Bible.
How can our readers learn more about this project?
There is some initial information available at ImmerseBible.com right now. This website will be updated very soon with many more details about buying the individual volumes of the Immerse Bible and also about the reading program for churches. There will be guides for pastors and small group leaders, an audio Bible, ebook editions, weekly videos for small groups, etc.
For more on this larger Bible reading movement and on the Institute for Bible Reading, check out https://instituteforbiblereading.org.
Thank you for your time and for putting up with all of my questions.
You’re welcome! It’s pleasure to have this opportunity to invite people into in-depth and at-length Bible feasting. And thank you for the service you provide to so many people on all things Bible.
Here’s my review of Saving the Bible From Ourselves: Learning to Read and Live the Bible Well
I will add the review of Immerse soon.
Some links are affiliates.